With the first day of school about a month away, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he’ll keep a mask mandate in place for K-12 students and staff because of rising COVID-19 transmission rates.

He’s also considering the possibility of mandating that state employees and certain private sector workers, such as doctors and nurses, get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is one way out of this pandemic, and that is more vaccinations,” Inslee said, during an hourlong news conference in Olympia on Wednesday. “But until we have more vaccinations, we need to be cautious. That’s what we’re doing today.”

The decision to keep the school mask mandate in place is driven largely by the delta variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in India late last year and has quickly spread around the globe.

“We know it’s about twice as infectious (as the original COVID-19 virus), and it’s much more likely to cause serious illness,” Inslee said. “It’s really the most dangerous variant we’ve seen to date.”

Dr. Umair Shah, director of the Washington Department of Health, said in just a matter of weeks, the delta variant has gone from accounting for a few percent of new COVID-19 cases in Washington to more than 70 percent. Computer models predict it will soon account for more than 95 percent of new cases in the state.

“What we’re seeing is that every seven to 10 days it appears to be doubling,” he said. “We’re seeing it take hold in our state, and that is absolutely why we need to change tactics.”

Inslee noted that no COVID-19 vaccine is currently approved for children younger than the age of 12. Combined with rising infection rates, he said, that’s a major reason for maintaining the school mask mandate.

Under the mandate, in-person instruction is allowed and even encouraged. However, all students, teachers, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks while indoors or on school buses, regardless of their vaccination status.

Inslee is also recommending that people wear masks indoors, whether they’re vaccinated or not, particularly in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates. That’s consistent with recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have the tools to beat this. We have the tools to break the back of this COVID pandemic, but there are too many people who, although they have access to a free, life-saving vaccine, have not availed themselves of it,” he said. “Frankly, it’s maddening that we have a life-saving medicine, that’s free, and we still have to be in this position.”

Inslee suggested that misinformation is the primary reason why roughly 30 percent of those who are eligible for the vaccine have chosen not to get it. The state recently launched a new “Power of Providers” initiative to help educate the public and encourage more people to get vaccinated.

If that doesn’t work, he said, he’ll consider mandating that state employees and/or certain private sector employees get vaccinated.

“We know we need to increase vaccination rates. The question is how to do that in a reasonable way,” Inslee said. Mandatory vaccines “is something we’re considering. We’ll be involved in the coming days in conversations with the broader public, with our employees, their (union) representatives and our agencies to see if that makes sense for Washington.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.